The momentous result of Britain’s referendum on its place in the European Union has created extraordinary uncertainty. While the tumult in the markets and the political fallout has engulfed the news, the search has begun for the true meaning of Brexit. This inquisition and its findings, however contested, will have ramifications far beyond Britain and the E.U.
It is expected to have profound implications for migration policy, for the treatment of the record number of refugees and displaced people worldwide, and the attitude of centrist governments everywhere, nervous of being outflanked on immigration from the right.
Already a consensus has emerged that Britain’s relationship to immigration was decisive. Insider accounts of both the Leave and Remain campaigns have revealed a common understanding of what unfolded. With around a month to go before the June 23 vote, the Remain camp was seen to have comprehensively won the economic argument and put itself on track for a narrow win for the status quo. This prompted the mainstream Leave camp to abandon all other avenues of campaigning and focus on immigration.
What had up until that point been several fractious factions supporting Leave – encompassing the officially recognized team headed by senior conservatives and the insurgent campaign by nationalist party, UKIP – became largely indistinguishable. Thus the rhetoric of the former mayor of London, Boris Johnson, calling on voters to “take back control” came to resemble the poster unveiled by a renowned right-wing populist, Nigel Farage, which pictured unidentified non-white refugees under the slogan: “Breaking point.”
Britain’s membership of the E.U. only directly affects the rights of other E.U. citizens to migrate to Britain, but the vote came to be seen by many Britons as a plebiscite on all forms of migration. The conclusion that attitudes towards immigration drove the U.K. to abandon its membership of the E.U. is not the same as explaining where those attitudes come from.
The roots of Brexit can be found in the failed attempt to stake out a centrist debate over immigration during the 2000s, Alex Betts, the head of the Refugee Studies Centre at Oxford University, argues. This vacuum was filled by populists on the left and right who converged on a negative account of immigration, one that was left unchallenged.
The public conversation that began with this failure has centered on control, even though the limits of migration control have been obvious to frontline politicians for years, argues Simon Cox, a migration lawyer and member of the Open Society Justice Initiative. The promise of easy control of migration, which was center stage towards the end of the Brexit campaign, is nonetheless illusory, he insists.
Britain, which has outsourced its migration control to European partners on the frontiers of the E.U. and in Calais, France, now faces building an entire new bureaucracy of migration control at the same time as Leave voters expect to see a Brexit dividend in public spending on health and education. The costs of this undertaking were never mentioned in the referendum campaign itself.
The momentum in the E.U. and elsewhere was already with migration control advocates, even before the impact of Brexit. The expectation in the expert community now is that the appetite for linking Western aid budgets to agreements with transit countries and migrants’ countries of origin to prevent migration will increase. The momentum for reversing the controversial E.U.-Turkey pact, which has been roundly criticized by rights advocates, lawyers and charities like Medecins San Frontieres, is likely to stall post-Brexit.
Even more fundamental to the future direction of policy is an emerging battle over how national identity is constituted. Many center and center-left politicians have been queasy about discussing national identity, and Britain’s former prime minister Gordon Brown was roundly criticized for his somewhat clumsy efforts to start a similar public debate more than a decade ago.
The post-Brexit consensus is that the populist right will always succeed in hijacking notions of identity and community. But some academics including Clara Sandelind, from the University of Huddersfield, continue to insist that a sense of belonging can be forged without resorting to shared hostility towards immigration.
Drawing on the experience of having watched the immigration control apparatus change from open to closed in her native Sweden, she argues that an approach to national identity based on something more substantial than controlling migration numbers is overdue. And that it should be embraced by mainstream actors who have avoided identity discussions altogether in the past. Rather than being tough on immigration, we can be tough on integration and thereby give back a sense of control to communities without necessarily reducing immigration, Sandelind argues.
With attitudes towards migration hardening all over Britain, the E.U. and beyond (as witnessed during election campaigns in Australia and the U.S.) some have concluded that another conversation about migration is no longer possible. From the grassroots, where a conversation club in the northern British city of Sheffield has successfully built bridges between asylum seekers and the local community, to the civil servants who know the real limitations of control policies, to the academics pondering the construction of national identities, another conversation is already underway.